As previously mentioned, I’m translating excerpts from some letters from the 1830s which are written in a somewhat nonstandard orthography, very idiosyncratic punctuation, and sometimes with rather peculiar expressions.

I’m currently at a bit which describes a woman with the phrase (if a phrase it is) témoin agente, and I’m having a bit of trouble figuring what exactly that is. The context would seem to imply that it’s simply a witness, but since I can find exactly one instance of the word being used on the Internet, I don’t have any way of verifying that this is in fact so.

The phrase occurs at the beginning of a letter:


Constance, ma chère Natalie, me prie de vous dire que ses esprits ne sont pas assez concentrés pour pouvoir se mettre auteur, en rapportant les scènes, auquelles elle a été témoin agente depuis ses derniers ouvrages en forme de lettres; toutes plaintes ont cessés, car elle a reçu 4 lettres de la part de sa chère Maman…

The ‘scenes’ referred to here are mainly the fact that Constance’s infant child had just gone through a terrible ordeal, nearly dying from some unknown illness. Saying that she doesn’t feel up to writing letters just yet describing the scenes she’s witnessed sounds quite reasonable and logical.

According to TLFi,

L’emploi au fém. est exceptionnel. Ac. 1878 signale que „lorsque le mot est pris en mauvaise part, on lui donne quelquefois un féminin“ avec les ex. suiv. : „Elle est leur principale agente. Je découvris que dans cette intrigue, elle était la principale agente.“

Going by that, the usage in the letter is additionally odd in that it uses the decidedly nonstandard feminine form of the word. Looking for témoin agent in the masculine doesn’t reveal anything more useful, though—everything I can find is examples like “le témoin, agent de police, était…”, where the two words just happen to be right next to each other, but have nothing really to do with each other.

Agent itself comes from the Latin āgēns, which is the present participle of āgō ‘act, do’. If we take that straight down to Modern French, one might assume that it means an ‘acting/active witness’ (someone who is an active part in the goings-on described, I suppose)—but the Modern French outcome of āgō is agir, whose present participle is agissant, not agent, so that doesn’t seem a likely explanation either.

So what does agente add to témoin in the particular context in my letter here? What does it mean to be témoin agent(e) to something?

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    I would say that your agissant comparison is actually quite apt. As the TLFi entry notes in Rem. 1 c), agent(e) is "by extension, anyone who acts". (It wouldn't be an adjective formed on a participle the way agissant is, but a compound noun likely formed on the fly.) I would think the letter writer is stressing that Constance didn't merely witness the scenes passively but was also involved in them. A paraphrase might be les scènes qu'elle a vécues.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Mar 23, 2017 at 14:12
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    Note that this might not be in use anymore, or if it is, it might be a technical term in the legal sphere: it's not something immediately recognizable to a native speaker today. Your first link seems to point to the expression being specialized legal lingo.
    – Frank
    Mar 23, 2017 at 14:14
  • True; if I encountered a similar phrase in English, "a witness who acted", I would suspect that the author had first chosen the word "witness" to convey the idea of being overwhelmed — and then thought it gave the wrong impression as to the agency of Constance and so added the second word to salvage their choice (especially given the handwritten format where deletion is arguably clumsier!) :p
    – Luke Sawczak
    Mar 23, 2017 at 14:17
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    @Luke That did seem the most likely of my not-very-likely options imaginable. Possibly the feminine form even hints that the writer did think of it as a kind of adjective (albeit not one formed from the contemporary participle), rather than an actual noun. Mar 23, 2017 at 14:18
  • @Frank I’m not sure how reliable that first link is to begin with—plus there is the fact that the word témoin in itself will attract an unusually high number of legal-lingo texts in itself, since witnesses do mostly tend to appear in legal situations. Mar 23, 2017 at 14:20

2 Answers 2


The passage you quote "Constance..." is a bit cryptic and hard to understand, but I would venture the following possible interpretation, that you might be able to validate from the context.

I would interpret témoin agente as meaning that Constance is/was both a witness and an active participant in the events she should write about. That would be in contrast to being an ordinary témoin or an ordinary agent, who are not both witness and participants, and might have special legal value. Here, possibly, Constance was a witness to the events (the complaints? the letters?), but also the recipients of the letters, maybe? I would need more context at this point.

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    There’s little to no chance of legalities entering into things here. The letter is written by Constance’s sister-in-law Adèle to her (Constance’s) sister Natalie. Constance and Adèle lived in India, while Natalie lived in Copenhagen, and the letter is simply a personal letter telling Natalie of what is going on with the family. I’m not quite sure what the complaints are either, but I’m fairly sure they are Constance’s complaints. Her husband had kept some letters from home hidden from her for a while, seemingly to shield her from too much bad news during her confinement and their son’s → Mar 23, 2017 at 14:29
  • → subsequent illness only a few months after he was born. The complaints may have been about not knowing how her parents and family were doing back home; the complaints would then logically stop when he did show her the letters. The letters mentioned in the first line here are almost certainly Constance’s previous letters home to Natalie in Copenhagen. Mar 23, 2017 at 14:31
  • Oh - I don't know if it's really "legalese". It sounds like it, but even if there was no legal context, I would offer the same interpretation. It's just that the expression being a big unusual to me, I thought it might be some legal stuff. But it could be unusual, and not be legalese either.
    – Frank
    Mar 23, 2017 at 14:35
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - the original contains several grammar errors. Is the author a native French speaker? I was wondering if témoin agente would be a mistake for témoignage which is kind of close, but would have been cut at the end of the line, then the other would have botched the gnage bit into agent. Possibly far-fetched, of course. Depends on the quality of the rest of the text. But of course it doesn't work work very well with a été just before it.
    – Frank
    Mar 23, 2017 at 16:00
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    I do think she was a native speaker, yes, but a bilingual one. There are generally few real, grammatical errors as such—that is, if you speak it out loud, it is phonetically grammatical. There are misspellings all over the place, but I think that’s down to her level of education and the general lack of standardisation of orthography in the 1800s. Mar 23, 2017 at 16:03

I agree with Franck explanation: she participates to the scenes.

To day we can have a more common expression like :

'Dans cette affaire, dont il a été témoin et agent,... '

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